Our Founder and Life President Sr Stan Kennedy was invited to speak at a Sinn Fein event in Dublin on September 17, which reviewed the first two years of Rebuilding Ireland. This is what Sr Stan had to say.
In the first place I want to thank Sinn Fein for inviting us to reflect on the first two years of Rebuilding Ireland and for asking me to look at Pillar 1, which concerns itself with homelessness. It turns out that the event takes place in a more politically heated context than when we accepted the invitation.
For that reason I want to make clear that Focus Ireland and myself personally have no position on the question of confidence in any Minister. We respect the role and authority of every Minister nominated by the Dáil, and work with them in whatever way is possible to end the misery of homelessness. So none of the comments I will make today – and I am sure Deputy Ó Broin will respect this – should in any way be read as taking a position on the upcoming vote which is entirely the prerogative of the Dáil. But while we have no view on who should be Minister for Housing, we have strong and well informed views as to the policies that should be pursued by any Minister. And it that question which I will now address
When we look back to review the first two years of Rebuilding Ireland a number of key features stand out.
Hard work of Focus Ireland staff
The first of these I want to mention is the hard work. Whatever else we go on to say about the delivery and outcome of Rebuilding Ireland it would be wrong to first acknowledge the incredible hard work and dedication that has been committed to it over the last two years. Of course, here I am first referring to the hard work of the staff in Focus Ireland and the other homeless organisations which have responded and find solutions day-in day-out to the growing number of people traumatised to lose their homes and find themselves homeless.
It is also important to acknowledge the growing number of volunteer-led groups on the street who provide much needed humanitarian assistance to people who are destitute. But, while we work with them on the street they would not see themselves as part of Rebuilding Ireland. What I am really referring to when I talk about hard work is the staff in local authorities, Tusla and in other public services who also work tirelessly to make things better, often with much less recognition. I also want to recognise the work of the staff away from the front line in the Department of Housing and in the Department of Youth and Children, whose long hours have made possible whatever progress that has been made.
Along with hard work, it is important to acknowledge the public money that has been spent. The budget allocated to tackle housing and homelessness has grown very significantly over recent years, with Minister Donohoe reporting a commitment of €1.9 billion in the current year.
It is also important to acknowledge the Government’s statement that the majority of the action points in the plan have either been delivered or are on track to be delivered. In Pillar 1 15 of the original 21 action points has been completed or are on track, with the other 6 described as ‘on-going’.
But, after acknowledged these facts, we must also go on to acknowledge that there are 3,366 more men, women and children who are homeless today than there were when Rebuilding Ireland was published. 1,519 more children.
Extraordinary Deepening of Crisis
This is an extraordinary deepening of what was already crisis when Rebuilding Ireland was drafted. We have long run out of language to express the scale of the problem we face and the harm it is doing.
So how do we explain this paradox that everything in the strategy is completed or on track but the thing we actually care about the most is getting worse?
Many of the explanations are to be found in the failure of the other Pillars which other contributions will address shortly. I will not pre-empt their analysis but only make the point that the underlying cause of our current homeless crisis is a shortage of affordable, secure homes. Despite what some commentators would suggest there has not been a catastrophic increase in family breakdown. Nor is there a rise in mental ill-health, substance abuse or any of the other factors which can contribute to homelessness. Nor did there suddenly occur in 2014 a sudden increased tendency for Irish people to ‘game the system’.
No, what happened is that there are too few available homes for the people who need them. This led to escalating competition for housing, increases in rents and increased risk of simply not being able to find a place to live. This problem affects people right through the housing system from first time buyers, people on average wages who rent, to young adults who have had to return to the family home. Inevitably its worst effect – which is homelessness – hits the most vulnerable hardest. Any attempts to pin the blame for growing homelessness on the people who are suffering it are deeply mistaken and diminish the person making them.
The fact that Rebuilding Ireland is a technical success but practical failure reveals some of the weaknesses at the heart of it.
A 50% increase in child homelessness does not come up as a ‘massive fail’ in the technical analysis of Rebuilding Ireland because it never set any objective of reducing homelessness. Rebuilding Ireland was the first Irish policy statement on homelessness in a generation which did not even mention the objective of ending long-term homelessness or rough sleeping. In fact there are no targets to reduce any form of homelessness at all.
Focus Ireland pointed this out at the time of its publication and called it a failure of ambition.
Now with two years’ experience we can see that it is more than this – it is a catastrophic failure of analysis. For not only are there no targets for reducing homelessness, there are no projections of how homelessness might develop in the absence of action. The reason there are no such projections is that there is no analysis of what was driving the emerging crisis – and crucially no attempt to quantify the scale of what action was required.
As a result, the strategy set a number of ‘milestones’ but failed to specify the destination or how far away it might be. Rebuilding Ireland failed to recognise the scale of the problem we face. As a result, while welcome progress is being made, it is neither sufficient nor rapid enough to match the challenge. This is why the strategy recognises that family homelessness needs a ‘separate and distinct’ response, but no one has yet drafted a sub-strategy on family homelessness – or even guidelines for front-line staff working at mid-night to prevent families having to sleep rough. This is why action on rent control, on evictions, on vulture funds has been delivered – but always long after it was needed and without the necessary enforcement. That is why the Department of Finance is only now considering whether some sort of negative incentive would help make some of the 180,000 vacant homes available for rent by the families that so desperately need them.
People need to work together
One of the risks created by this situation is that a sense of fatalism and despair may set in. The people who have worked so hard may become weary; the policy makers may become defensive. People who need to work together may be locking in dispute. Irish society may begin to accept mass homelessness as a normal part of an otherwise prosperous society.
We all have a part to play in ensuring that that does not happen.
We need to get ahead of the crisis. We need to take our experience over the last two years and collectively recalibrate our national response. We need to acknowledge the progress made under Rebuilding Ireland, and the foundations for further action that it has set. But we also need to recognise the structural weaknesses that it has highlighted and that problem is far greater than the drafters of Rebuilding Ireland recognised. We need to get a realistic measure of the scale of the challenge we face, and the harm that inaction will do us, and we need to decide what scale of national resources we need to deploy to face that challenge.
Many thousands of people, most of them currently not homeless and unaware of the risk they face, depend upon our capacity to do this.
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